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Patient Stories

Step by Step: A Surprise Diagnosis of Peripheral Artery Disease
By Healthy Life 2010 Fall

When North Reading resident Ellen O’Callaghan had a sudden heart attack at the age of 48, she not only discovered she had heart disease, but she also learned she had peripheral artery disease (PAD) and had four to five times more risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

PAD, like coronary artery disease and carotid artery disease, is a form of atherosclerosis or where fatty deposits called plaque build up inside the arteries and restrict the flow of blood to muscles and tissue. O’Callaghan, like many people with PAD, went undiagnosed because the symptoms are not constant and are similar to other things. She had noticed a pain in her upper left leg by her hip on her evening walks around Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield, but she didn’t realize immediately it was a sign of vascular disease.

“I thought it was just a pulled muscle that needed some rest,” said O’Callaghan. But when the pain happened whenever she walked and everyday activities became painful to do, she got worried, since having a family history of heart attacks and circulation problems kept reminding her that perhaps a simple problem could lead to something serious. That premonition came true just a few months later when she suffered a heart attack.

“Even though I know my family has a history of heart problems, I am still shocked I had a heart attack.” said O’Callaghan. “I am young and healthy and exercise plays an important part in my life. Never did I think it would happen to me,” said O’Callaghan.

The cause of O’Callaghan’s heart attack was a blockage in one of the arteries leading to her heart. North Shore Medical Center (NSMC) interventional cardiologist, David Roberts, M.D., performed an angioplasty, inserting a thin balloon-tipped tube (or catheter) into the blocked the artery, and placing a stent (a wire mesh tube) to keep the artery open so blood could flow properly.

After her heart attack, she was referred to NSMC vascular surgeon Larry Goldberg, M.D., to investigate her symptoms of vascular claudication (pain when walking) and to make sure she didn’t have any blockages in other arteries or veins in her body.

Dr. Goldberg performed vascular tests and an MRA — a magnetic resonance angiography —which evaluates arteries, veins and blood flow. Through these tests, Dr. Goldberg found that O’Callaghan had significant narrowing of her iliac arteries, which are two large arteries that stem from the abdomen, that was preventing normal blood flow to her legs and causing the pain when she walked.

NSMC vascular surgeon James Balcom, IV, M.D., performed an angioplasty on O’Callaghan’s iliac arteries—the same type of procedure performed on her coronary artery after her heart attack. “Once the stent is in place and blood is flowing freely, the results are incredible. The patients notice an immediate difference,” said Dr. Balcom. “There are several treatment options available for PAD, but prevention is key. Exercising, eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep and avoiding smoking are the best ways to prevent the disease.”

O’Callaghan noticed an immediate difference. “I remember taking that first step after my surgery. For two years, I was used to feeling pain, so I was waiting for it when I started to walk. But it never came back,” said O’Callaghan. “I love walking and getting outside, and now because of the vascular experts at North Shore Medical Center, I can. I don’t take any step for granted.”